[Editor's note: Last night, the City Council was expected to vote on the renaming of 39th Avenue. That decision has been delayed until July 8. More news here.]
Last night, Portland's City Commission heard testimony for and against renaming 39th Ave. to Cesar E. Chavez. Because of the overwhelming attendance (mostly against the change) we each only got a minute. There was some compelling information on both sides, but because of the short 60 second window, we didn't get all we could. Here's mine:
I’m strongly in favor of renaming 39th Avenue for labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. I won’t retread his historical worth, because from where I sit it is obvious.
A friend of mine said to me that there is a point that is often missed when debating the worth of Cesar Chavez to Portlanders: we are a town of foodies. We care about what we eat. We proudly support local farms, markets and restaurants that serve local, seasonal food in very small amounts, stylishly served on small plates. Every proper Portland foodie trots out Michael Pollen’s books like their own personal Bibles and yet in the uproar over the name change, we do not want to give credence to the man who fought for the rights of the workers who make sure that local food is available to us, handled by workers who are treated as well as we are at our jobs.
How do you get those fresh, seasonal pears or that local, organic wine or beer that we proudly drink and trot out for our party guests? Even our own local fast food chain boasts seasonal shakes and something I discovered this morning: a strawberry and goat cheese Panini. Those fruits don’t pick themselves. They don’t magically appear at New Seasons, Trader Joe’s (on 39th, by the way), Burgerville or the latest offering at The Farm Cafe. That work is done by farm laborers. Many are residents of Oregon, many are migrant workers. Cesar Chavez fought for all their rights – starting with Vietnamese immigrants, migrant workers displaced by the Great Depression and Latino immigrants.
Did you know that Cesar Chavez was a vegan? Close your eyes and change his name, to say, Charlie Cooper. He would be like any other Portlander fighting for equal rights like a Basic Rights Oregon activist, protecting workers like the Service Employees International Union and advocating a buy local system like the small retailers all around town. All Chavez was missing was the heavy irony and a few tattoos. Oh and a bike, he would have needed a fix-y with a stainless steel water bottle.
Marginalizing Chavez by naming something small after him is like marginalizing MLK by naming a church after him. The beauty of naming a street is that everyone sees the name Cesar Chavez throughout the city; from North to South. It will start conversations, not just about this leader, but broader, more vital discussions about race, justice and inclusion. Our children, our neighbors should know Chavez’s work as much as they know Martin Luther King’s or Rosa Parks. Let us not forget that the same arguments that are being made to fight the change on 39th are the same ones that were made 20 years ago when Union was changed to Martin Luther King Jr. That process also took years.
We as Portlanders should honor Chavez. He transformed the lives of people who worked hard daily, to bring Americans fresh food. We should continue to honor the people who bring food to our tables by naming a street after the person who allowed them to be treated fairly at work. Portland should have a visible, constant reminder of a man who represented all working people.
To some it's an expense, it's a distraction, or it's simply uncomfortable. I’ve been in the room when some said they felt that naming a street after a person of color means the wrong element might start coming around. I’ve heard someone else say that a Latino could never afford a house off 39th – she lived in Laurelhurst – so why would we put it there? What message does that send?
This renaming should matter to foodies, but it deeply matters people like me and people who are shades darker and shades lighter. It’s about continuing to make Portland an inclusive city – not just a city that includes environmentalists or artists or musicians or restaurateurs, or liberals, but for everybody. That is your responsibility, commissioners, to make sure everyone has a place in the mosaic that is Portland. Thirty nine is just a number. Cesar Chavez is about our community.